Chemical and plastics industries love fracking


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    BASF renovated its Port Arthur plant last year to be able to use natural gas to make ethylene. 

    - BASF

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    BASF renovated its Port Arthur plant last year to be able to use natural gas to make ethylene. 

    - BASF

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    Jason Warrior’s six-year-old daughter Makayla suffers from asthma. They live close to refineries and chemical plants in Port Arthur.

    - Reid R. Frazier

PORT ARTHUR, Texas -- Fracking is fueling a manufacturing renaissance in some parts of the country. Companies want to use the gas to provide energy -- but one sector uses natural gas to make materials that go into virutally everything we own.

The chemical industry is spending billions to expand its business in the United States. And it’s all because of fracking.

The boom is taking shape at places like BASF’s massive “ethane cracker” in Port Arthur, Texas. Unit manager Andy Miller looks up at what looks like an enormous HVAC system. He points to a furnace, where oil and natural gas are heated to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and turns into ethylene, an ingredient in most plastics. From here, the ethylene will go elsewhere to be turned into a variety of consumer goods, like food packaging, antifreeze, even diapers. 

“This is where we start to build the building blocks to make those products,” Miller says.  

Until recently, this plant used only oil to make ethylene. But last year, BASF started using natural gas as well. Why? It’s cheap. Really cheap. Natural gas was once over $12 per thousand cubic feet, as recently as 2008. With the spread of fracking into gas-rich states like Texas and Pennsylvania, it’s now between $3 and $4.

Because of this, the U.S. is now one of the cheapest places on earth to make plastic. Chemical companies are expanding plants that make ethylene and fertilizer, or building new ones.

“It is a huge deal,” says Joe Chang, global editor of ICIS Chemical Business. “It’s a great amount of expansion, all based on the premise that you’re going to have these low-cost natural gas feedstocks for some time.”

Chang estimates the industry will expand in the U.S. by a whopping 38 percent in the next few years.

Most of the jobs from this boom will be created outside the chemical plants.

“There’s a whole lot motels in the area, the businesses stay packed, so the area around here’s been booming pretty good,” said Randall Delahoussaye, safety director for Port Arthur branch of DeBusk Services Group. The company does industrial cleaning and maintenance at chemical plants and refineries along the Gulf.

Cheap gas means more plastic. And more jobs in Port Arthur. But it may also mean more pollution.

Jason Warrior lives in an apartment complex close to some of Port Arthur’s refineries and chemical plants. He wonders if what’s coming out of the smokestacks are the cause of his six-year-old daughter’s asthma. Sometimes the flares burn brightly in the middle of the night. 

“Probably like 2, 3 in the morning -- something like that? They start burning them off. You’ll see the whole apartments around here just light up,” Warrior says.

The industry says it’s getting cleaner all the time. EPA figures show the pollution at many of the plants in Port Arthur is declining. But the plants still produce close to 4 million pounds of toxic air emissions a year.

The chemical industry is looking to expand its footprint -- new plants are in the works for Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

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